The Italian Teacher: A Novel by Tom Rachman

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When she was living here with Pinch alone, Natalie heard from nobody. Then Bear moved to Rome and the invitations gushed in.

1950’s Rome, successful artist Bear Bavinsky is the center of his wife Natalie (Natty) and Son Pinch’s (Charles) lives. It’s a whirlwind when he is with them, and like death when he is absent. Natty longs to be taken seriously as an artist, but ‘lady potters’ aren’t taken seriously, unlike painters such as Bear who was raved about in Life magazine. Everyone wants a piece of him, longs to know his secrets but he burns most of his work. ‘Maybe six canvases a year make the cut.’ Such revelations create mystery, make him far more sought after. Bear wants nothing more than to have his great works of art hang in museums. Natalie lives in the shadow of her American artist husband often wishing her Canadian self erased.

She was barely 20 when they met in Rome, he nearly 40. There for the summer to study art, Natty is seduced by his talent and fame. He becomes her home, with him she can be ‘an artist’, and never return to Canada. She becomes his wife, after he gets out of the tangle of his first family’s clutches. They have Pinch together, and he is just as in awe of his father as Natty. He yearns to follow the blazing trail his father has set, and tucks away every lesson Bear has taught him. When the story begins, we follow Pinch as a little boy but by 1963 he is 11, attending a private international school in Rome because Bear wants his son to grow up ‘American’. Natty is more housewife than artist, living nothing of the bohemian life she had dreamed up for herself. Bear is consumed with creating his masterpieces in his studio, or surrounded by groupies. Pinch feels forgotten, but Bear has the gift for knowing just when trust is waning, and suck people back in, Pinch is no exception. Pinch is a sort of stand in for his father’s disappearing acts, and is more ‘the little man’ than child, helping his mother survive much like a single woman. Pinch tries so hard to lend confidence and hope to his depressed mother, but it is only with Bear’s fleeting attention on her that she blossoms.

When Birdie, Bear’s youngest daughter from his first marriage visits, Pinch is excited to get close to his half-sister. Unbeknownst to him, he is getting a preview of what it means to be discarded by his father. Birdie doesn’t care for his art, she needs his love. Pinch decides witnessing Birdie’s revolt to remain staunchly loyal to his fickle father. Bear is immovable when it comes to tantrums. Great men can’t be expected to worry about such mundane things as day-to-day chores, caring for children, making the wife happy, oh no! They have things to create, they must be remembered in history! There is a line that expresses Bear better than anything else, “Dad is striding away, and Bear Bavinsky does not slow his pace.” 

Soon his father departs for work in New York, leaving Natty and Pinch on their own in Rome. He doesn’t return and Pinch is trying to catch up to his father’s greatness, and earn his love the rest of the novel, and his life.  It isn’t until 1971 that Pinch visits his father in New York , placing his dream of being an artist in his fathers gifted, careless hands.  Crushed by the reality of his skills, he forges a new future for himself, that of an art critic. He decides Toronto, and his forgotten maternal grandmother are the key to his success. There he is befriended by Marsden, who is part of a wealthy family in Ontario, and reckless of his own luck. Pinch falls in love with a girl, and watches everything go awry when he takes her to visit his father in France. He has concocted a great plan, to be biographer of his father, assuring his art and name will live forever, alongside other great men. Life comes at Pinch and his plans hard. He tries to be the sort of man his father would admire, and Bear is forever present in his head.

Years after her time with Bear, Natty is damaged and needy, but ‘gets by’ on her own, after she moves to London. It’s easier to imagine her life going on fine without him, because she and her sadness are like an anchor that can pull him down to places his doesn’t want to root. He wants to be like Bear, though in so many ways he is becoming his mother. The characters in this novel are alive, and deeply flawed either by hero-worship, selfishness, blindness or need. They are also at times very self-aware, but unable to change, and many of us can relate. As for Pinch, I am so happy that Rachman doesn’t make life shimmer and shine for him. I kept fearing he would grow up to be one of the beautiful people, and win everything in life.

He comes into his own with strange deceit, and I loved it. His final opinion of his own art skills mean more in the end than anything his ‘art-god’ father could ever say. This is both a tender and cruel novel. Bear charges like a bull through the lives of every single person he claims to love, and you really can’t help but think he truly can’t be any other way. It’s interesting to ponder on how loaded every moment a parent’s approval is, how easily we can crush or lift our sons and daughters. It breaks your heart how much Pinch wants to mean something to Bear, and how little he accounts for Natty’s constancy. Her words to him, ” Anyway, the force of will in Bear is incredible. I envy him that. You need to be selfish as an artist- that’s why it’s so much harder for a woman.” Just which parent was truly the weaker one? I’ll let you decide.

This novel just has something special that moved me, maybe having children that are both forging a path in art careers I feel a tenderness for characters like Pinch. This is a favorite for me in 2018!

Publication Date: March 20, 2018

Penguin

 

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